A year ago, people around the world began to retreat to their homes as they settled into the reality that a little-understood virus had turned into a pandemic. Most of us had no idea what would come, how long it would last, or how much our world would change over the course of the next year. But what if we could travel back in time to right before the pandemic and tell ourselves what lay ahead? What advice would we offer? What would we warn our past selves about how our lives would change in 12 short months?
When Vox asked this question in a survey, we were astounded to receive more than 3,000 responses from people across the globe. We heard from those who had lost loved ones and had babies, from people who lost their sense of smell, discovered their sexuality, wished they had bought different stocks, lost jobs, and started therapy. Almost everyone who participated told us that the last year represented a profound shift in their lives, for better or for worse.
Here are 14 people whose advice and stories, condensed and edited for clarity, stood out to us.
I’d say to myself: “Prepare yourself for an ocean full of sadness and endless loneliness. Your life won’t ever be perfect, but you’ll still be here. You will meet one of your best friends via the internet who will be there for you and care for you from thousands of kilometers apart. You will read thousands of words, you will go to therapy, you will try to make yourself better no matter how deep and how hard you fall.”
At the end of the day, I can’t say that this year has been the best for me — but it changed me. It made me gain a new sense of appreciation for life and for love and how strong I am, no matter my depression.
—Didem Nur Yayman, 19, Antalya, Turkey
You’ll lose your sense of smell in October. It’ll really bring into sharp contrast the different texture air can have that isn’t smell, like dustiness, humidity. You can’t smell smoke, but you can feel it in your nostrils. Strong smells often have a physical aspect — similar to how ammonia gets in your nose and is overpowering not just because it smells strong, but because you can feel it in your airways as you breathe in. Your smell will come back slowly over the next year, in little bits at a time, until half a year later, you’ll be able to smell three things and sometimes get wafts of others.
Also! You’ll realize you’re gay. You won’t think about it too much over the first lockdown, but as restrictions ease and you’re able to see people again, you’ll start thinking about it. You’ll take a few “Am I gay” quizzes — actions I’m fairly sure no straight person has ever undertaken — and after lockdown, your first thought upon seeing a girl will be, “Holy shit, I am gay.” It’ll be very difficult to maintain that you are straight when you’ve had that kind of thought. I suspect that would have happened regardless of the pandemic, but either way, it did happen.
—Muireann Walsh, 19, Switzerland
You’re not going to believe this, but in one year, when someone asks “where are you from” and you answer “Wuhan” like you’ve done for your entire life, everyone — from your high school teacher in Missouri to your patient in Queens — will know both exactly what you’re talking about while knowing nothing about where you’re actually talking about. The up and down eyebrow dance will be amusing, but then you’ll have to explain your existence for the next half hour. Also, please teach your parents how to use the flip function on their video calls so you don’t spend the next year talking to a big toe.
—Dee Luo, 27, New York
Be patient and take care of yourself and those around you.
My depression definitely took a turn for the worse, with the very long lockdown. We observed Ramadan isolated from our extended families so I learned how important connections were and how much I valued them. Unfortunately, since mosques were closed, that sense of comfort and community was lost. Without the routines of Ramadan that I was so comfortable with, the days felt quite long. Lots of personal growth through a hard, helpless year.
—Rushdha Rasheedh, 33, Malé, Maldives
The events of the past year have made me realize how different my mentality is compared to everyone else’s. It wasn’t until everything closed down and we were told to stay home alone as much as possible that I realized how little all these regular day-to-day events mean to me. Going out, having dinner, meeting friends, watching a movie at the cinema, shaking the hand of someone, shopping, and so on — the degree to which I am totally okay with the lockdown is staggering. But when I look at my friends I can see that they are obviously suffering a lot. I always felt like I was different somehow, and corona revealed why.
—Emil Sebastian, 35, Copenhagen, Denmark
I would tell her that a job doesn’t define her and that success comes from thriving from within. Still working on that.
Rosario Bonifasi, 25, Guatemala City
You will get diagnosed with breast cancer in August. Your future-husband will ask you to marry him for the third time. You’ll say yes and have a small wedding, right before everything closes down.
You will be declared cancer-free in January. You will be amazed by how good cancer treatment is in Denmark and how well the hospital system handles this public health crisis. You will be finished with cancer about the same time as the whole nation will be vaccinated.
June, 35, Copenhagen
You’ll lose your mom to Covid-19. She was in a skilled nursing facility that shut down to visitors. Dad and their dog hadn’t even seen her for seven weeks when she died alone at a hospital. You’ll drive 15 hours to help Dad bury her, just the four of us graveside, as other family members weren’t able to attend. So few of her wishes will be honored due to Covid, specifically Jewish tradition. There will be no closure in a Zoom funeral, even less in Zoom shiva.
Everyone is going to reach a breaking point this year, maybe more than once. Reserve your strength when you can so you can continue to be there for others. Every marriage will hit moments of challenge that will seem insurmountable. Don’t make big decisions in the midst of a pandemic. The circumstances of the world are myopic at best. At worst, they are lying to you.
Your mom knows that you love her dearly. It’s your dad that needs to know.
—Julie Horowitz-Jackson, 51, Chicago
Taking baby steps makes all the difference.
After spending almost a year in bed with the worst depression of my life, I decided things had to change when the pandemic hit. I decided to do a partial hospitalization program where I did therapy for six hours a day for 10 days. I forced myself to stop looking outside myself for validation, and forced myself to follow my own path even though it’s different from other people’s.
A year ago, I was fantasizing about my life being over. Now, I am pursuing an education. Without the pandemic hitting and forcing the whole world to slow down, I am not sure if I would have forced myself to do intense therapy and push myself in the way that I have over this year.
Josefina Cárdenas, 20, New York City
Prepare yourself for homelessness: sleeping on cardboard, eating out of trash cans, and shitting in alleys. You’ll move five counties, develop couch-surfing skills, and abilities to survive with no money. You will get out of it. Don’t jump.
—Connor, 22, Wisconsin
You are enough. You don’t have to be productive in the way society praises. Getting up each day and facing yourself or whatever else is on your mind and your calendar is enough.
I’m high risk/immunodeficient. I stay home all day every day. I don’t get groceries or go out. It was really mentally tough at first but I have been continuously in awe of what our bodies can do. My mind and body have adapted to this new life and I no longer feel like a caged animal. I feel an overwhelming sense of thankfulness for my disabled body that I never thought possible, all because of its beautiful and vibrant ability to change and evolve in whatever way serves us best.
Rebekka Etchell, 24, California
I would tell my pre-pandemic self that many families are far less financially secure than we believe. I saw so many established families, ones with cars and mortgages and well-paying jobs, slip through the cracks losing what they had worked so hard to obtain. My own family, who I thought was sufficiently blessed and well off, experienced similar issues. My father, who has been a car estimator since 2000, was furloughed from his job, and they ultimately let him go due to “internal problems” during the pandemic. After finally getting on unemployment, the bills started piling up and he sold his car to make sure we could hold onto our house and life. Unable to find a job, my stepfather created his own lawn-care business, cutting grass to put food on the table for me and my two siblings.
My siblings and parents have repeatedly grown weary of each other. I have yet to learn the newest TikTok dances as there are too many to keep up with. We’ve experienced the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as the protests on a deeply personal level. But the most significant change in my life over the last year has been my confidence in my grades and ability to compete with others in college admissions. I worry that little to no liberty or grace will be given to students like me whose high school careers were deeply affected by this pandemic.
—Myles Byars, 17, Belton, Texas
Life will be unbearable for a while, but eventually, my love, you will finally be able to come out of the closet. You’ll start transitioning, and even though you shall remain the hot mess that you’ve always been, things will feel okay for the first time since puberty made a wreck out of you. And even though everything is going to crumble around you, you’ll feel fine, because, somehow, amid poverty, death, and chaos, you will feel like yourself.
Sabina Sabino, 19, São Paulo, Brazil
I would tell myself to appreciate the little things and the people that make life worth living.
I worked as an essential worker working with the homeless in Santa Monica and it literally destroyed my mental health. I saw how the pandemic affected the people on the lowest end of the economic spectrum, and it’s destroyed my perception of reality beyond repair. What very few resources exist for homeless people in the city were limited by the pandemic beyond belief. There were some days where I would just stand with a person lying unconscious on the street, just to make sure that they weren’t dead.
If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s to be grateful for what you have because life is just about surviving, and the things that make you happy are precious.
—Arden Jurskis, 24, Stuart, Florida